Sunday, February 14, 2016

Two Halves Dance As One: Allen and Karen Kaeja and lifeDUETS

Allen and Karen Kaeja in lifeDUETS. (Photo by Zhenya Cerneacov)

For over a quarter century, Allen and Karen Kaeja have kept it real with contact improvisation, a no rules technique enabling them to move without premeditation. Relying on instinct more than memory to execute a step, as improv dancers they inhabit an animal state and are alive to every sensation alighting on the flesh. Vivacity of expression and being fully in the moment are qualities the Kaejas are best known for, and the choreographers they have commissioned to create new work for their lifeDUETS series have been wise to harness that raw energy for the dances they have designed for them to interpret.

Commemorating the married couple's 25 years as dancers and choreographers, the aptly named lifeDUETS features brave new work, one each by Benjamin Kamino and Tedd Robinson, daredevil choreographers both. The two-pronged program debuted in Toronto in October to packed houses and critical acclaim and is now going on the road. LifeDUETS will open Atlantic Ballet's upcoming festival of indie dance, IMPACTfest, in Moncton on Feb. 16, and next year will travel to the West Coast for performances in Vancouver. There's a reason the Kaejas are in demand.

A sinewy and sensual partnership, they are colleagues as well as co-habitants whose own company Kaeja D'Dance, founded in Toronto in 1989, has long served as an incubator for new ways of seeing and thinking about dance. Their own work as choreographers is highlighted by consciousness and commitment. As dancers they are bold and brazen, deeply attuned to the senses and the musculature triggering their flights of abandon. They hoist and carry each other aloft. But they don't pretend to be equals. In lifeDUETS, she wears a skirt and he is bare-chested, showing off his broad wrestler's shoulders. They are opposites who through balance and counter balance have found equilibrium. The improvisation-based dance they practice one movement begetting another in a pattern of give and take is a metaphor for the harmonious relationship that has sustained them through 25 years of living, working and dancing together and will no doubt continue to drive them forward. The desire is there.

Allen and Karen Kaeja in lifeDUETS. (Photo by Zhenya Cerneacov)

The couple's approach to dance and by extension their lives, as dancing is their living is free of the burden of self-reflection, a narcissistic pursuit that weighs down so much independence dance, making it wearisome and stale. Attention is given more to the relationship with the other and the idea that dance is a social act that binds people, couples as well as communities, together. If that sounds ordinary, then so is much of what inspires them. Falling in love, making babies, having arguments, paying bills, playing house: it's all grist for the Kaejas' artistic mill. They dance the body domestic, in all its balding glory. Both works on the lifeDUETS program draw inspiration from their tight-knit relationship as well as the synchronized rhythms of their everyday lives.

Kamino's with, a word meaning both accompanied by and possessed, opens the program with the Kaejas very much appearing as an interdependent couple. Husband and wife are intertwined on the stage floor covered with a roll of white paper well before the audience enters the theatre, her head in his lap. With eyes closed, they warm up lying down, liberated from the pull of gravity and anything else that might distract from their immersion in each other's company. An amplified piece of baroque choral music by Antonio Lotti, consisting of soaring strings and soprano voices, establishes an atmosphere of reverent observation. But that's just a tease. When they rise and begin to dance, they move strangely apart and don't touch again until the work's end. They have become mirror images of each other, fun house mirror images that distort and render into caricature the physical attributes of the other. She acts blunt and apish; he twitters and twirls like a make-believe fairy princess. Sounds of horns blaring and crowds yelling suggest a sharp left hand turn into a street lined with confusion.

The comic book posturing is funny but also unnerving. That nice couple? What happened? Transformed into grunts and confrontational poses, they are confrontational, daring the audience to like what it sees. Which isn't easy. Kamino, an up-and-coming Canadian choreographer with a growing reputation for pushing the boundaries of contemporary dance, whacks complacency right out the door. His work is inherently oppositional and risky, with little interest in pleasing a crowd. You watch fascinated, wondering what will happen next. But the content is mostly improvised, allowing for a different series of exaggerated portraits to emerge with each performance. What does repeat every night is Karen's solo which she performs unseen by Allen who has disappeared beneath the white paper floor held high above his head at the corner's edge. Without him she is set free, back to being her own woman with swirling hips and flailing long hair. Yet, even invisible he is visible, his boxy shape discernible beneath a tabula rasa evocatively stamped with his presence.

Allen and Karen Kaeja in lifeDUETS. (Photo by Zhenya Cerneacov)

A tent that looks like it came from Canadian Tire takes the place of that bulge in the floor with the next piece on the program. The title, 25 to 1, appears to be a direct reference to the Kaejas and the years they have been together as a married couple. The numbers they shout out, starting at 25 and counting down to ground zero, the first year they met, recall a life studded with conjugal bliss and blahs. The highs are quite literal in that the work references, in lanky dance language, the Kaejas' background in jet-propelled contact improvisation. It also recalls their pioneering work in creating the elevation, a trademark lift of totemic heft that sends the lifted soaring over the lifter's head. So it feels biographical. But as created by Robinson, a former Winnipeg Contemporary Dancers company member known for visually arresting works propelled by internal stress, this deliciously textured duet uses an idea of coupledom to conjoin two bodies in time and space. So in essence it could be about anybody. Robinson's interest no doubt lies in peering inside the heads of those who sleep together in bed. But he is also here exploring the technical implications of a dance for two. How do the dancers in a duo counter each other's weight? How do they build up an accumulation of shared gestures to create a narrative that radiates the trust inherent to an intimate relationship? How do they make their partnership compelling for others to watch? The short answer, going backwards in sequence, is humour, invention and skill. 25 to 1 the title could also be a gambling reference, an expression of the ratio at stake before a payoff alludes to the uncertainty of any relationship. Yet, in this case, Robinson has produced a winner.

The work is a memory dance veiled in fog, symbolizing nostalgia. The dancers wander through its many branches of suggested meaning, content to be reliving a romantic past. They smile coquettishly at each other, and flirt like first daters. Arms entwined and bodies sandwiched together, they perform a dance with fluttering hands that extend from the heart. Down on all fours, Karen runs a series of coloured shoes across her back, suggesting the mundanity supporting their passion. Allen turns like a dervish and balances Karen like a plank over one knee. She puts a finger to his mouth as if to hush him, and they kiss passionately while grabbing at each other's bodies. Here, ladies and gentleman, is a middle aged couple still hot for each other. That alone is worth the price of admission. But the intensity doesn't last.

"I love you! I need you! I want you! I hate you! I am so confused ...." The mixed emotions, narrated via voice over, cut through Quebec composer Charles Quevillon's original tape loop score of French horns and guitars, sparking laughter in those members of the audience who can recognize, from personal experience, passion's jagged cry of extremes. Yet, in spite of the ups and downs, this is a couple that craves proximity. When together they set up their tent at centre stage, it is clear that they have created a world for themselves, soft and tender and illuminated from within by a golden light that can be interpreted to be love. The tent looks like a cocoon, and when the couple enters the understanding is that their goal is a transformative act of procreation. Two halves become one. They kiss again, and, as they slide provocatively below the transparency of the mosquito netting, you think for once you really shouldn't be watching this. But you can't tear your eyes away.

 Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released in paperback, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large.

No comments:

Post a Comment